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Allen C. Guelzo

Free to Do What?

Emancipation reconsidered

The 19th century was the great age of emancipations. The Enlightenment's hostility to the old intellectual and political verities, followed by the revolutionary export of that hostility by the French Revolution and Napoleon, made emancipation from the weights of control and custom over music, art, and above all, politics the master agenda of the century. "What is the great question of the age?" asked Heinrich Heine in 1826, "It is that of emancipation." It included the "emancipation of the Irish, Greeks, Frankfort Jews, West Indian Negroes, and other oppressed races." But it also embraced "the emancipation of the whole world, and especially that of Europe, which has attained its majority and now tears itself loose from the iron leading-strings of a privileged aristocracy." As the American educator Horace Mann predicted in 1848, The age of "TYRANTS AND SLAVERY is rapidly drawing to a close," to be followed by "the universal emancipation of man."

And yet, the century of emancipation closed with the shadow of the following century's totalitarianisms already falling over it. In so many places, the great experiments in emancipation fell so far short of the promise of the term that it was easy to look for alternatives, not in liberation, but in experiments with power. Russian serfs were delivered from medieval bondage by Tsar Alexander II's decree of 1861, but the emancipated serfs lost only their constraints without gaining anything beyond that. After Prussia's catastrophic defeat by Napoleon in 1811, opposition to the civic emancipation of German Jews collapsed and an Act of Emancipation—emanzipierung—naturalized Prussian Jews as citizens. But this was only in time for the dark genius of German Romanticism to begin dreaming the Wagnerian dreams of the Aryan ubermensch that would flower hideously in the Final Solution.

No emancipation, however, cost more or has seemed in the hands of its remembrancers to have delivered less than the American emancipation of its black slaves ...

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